The Power of Lula

A little more than one month ago, at the end of August, things looked differently. For the voter concerned with the rise of Bolsonaro (PSL), and the wave of extreme right-wing populism washing over Brazil, it looked like things would turn out okay in the end. Sure, the rise of Bolsonaro and what it signified –– similar to the growth of extreme right-wing views seen in many recent elections –– was worrying, but Brazil would not repeat the US experience of Trump.

On August 20, Bolsonaro led the polls with 22% according to Datafolha (one of Brazil’s major polling institutes, associated with one of the nation’s foremost newspapers, Folha de S.Paulo). He was followed by Marina Silva (REDE, green center-left) at 16% and Ciro Gomes (PDT, center-left) at 10%. Bolsonaro’s high rejection percentage, however, meant that the opponent qualifying for the second round would defeat Bolsonaro by receiving the total of the anti-Bolsonaro vote. What did the first round matter anyway if everything would be settled comfortably in the second round?

Voting intention %, Datafolha.

At the time, the country’s most popular contender, “Lula” da Silva, had already been sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption, impeding him from running in the election. Although the prospects were bleak for him in succeeding with judicial appeals in order to regain his right to participate in the race, his party, PT (center-left), insisted on keeping him as their official intended candidate. Looking beyond this posture, most observers believed Fernando Haddad, the ex-mayor of São Paulo, would eventually be named the official candidate. At 4%, Haddad was widely seen as a minor threat. The question for PT was if Lula’s popularity (steadily above 30% of voting intention) could be transferred to a candidate not well known outside his native São Paulo.

Supreme Court minister Luis Roberto Barroso had given the party until the 11th day of September to officially replace Lula as the head of the ticket. On September 11, Haddad became the official candidate. On that day he had 8% in the poll conducted by IBOPE, another major polling institute. Ciro Gomes got 11% and Marina Silva a shrinking 9%.

One week later, Ciro remained at 11%. Haddad had reached 19% –– an increase the same as Ciro’s total. Marina kept shrinking, down to 6%. On the way down she passed by Geraldo Alckmin (PSDB, center-right) whose fall was a little slower, now at 7% from a previous 9%. The Datafolha poll showed the same pattern only in slightly lower numbers.

Voting intention %, IBOPE.

Alckmin’s low popularity was just another showcase of this election’s peculiarities. His party, PSDB, has been the main contender against Lula since Fernando Henrique Cardoso won the 1994 election (the second presidential election since the country’s redemocratization) already in the first round. This time around, despite having the most exposure on free television networks (a regulated space for political ads in the election run-up), usually key in winning elections, the former governor of São Paulo had not managed to propel himself. Political realities had changed.

With Haddad’s rise the concerned moderate anti-Bolsonaro voter began to worry. Just a week had passed but it changed everything. Haddad was now predicted to continue to the second round. It was the worst possible outcome. The two most polarizing candidates facing each other, forcing those who agreed with none of them to choose sides. A definite advantage for Bolsonaro.

In a chaotic first interview as official candidate, on the main late-night news show Jornal Nacional, Haddad fed the rejection of himself. William Bonner, a long-time anchor on the show, insisted on asking about PT’s reluctancy to engage in self-criticism regarding its extensive involvement in systemic corruption schemes. Fernando Haddad kept avoiding answering, instead repeating over and over that the laws that allowed for the revelations were passed by his party.

While the rejection of Bolsonaro has kept relatively steady in the last month, Haddad’s has risen 18% since he announced his candidacy. In the last poll before the election, carried out by IBOPE, Jair Bolsonaro had a rejection of 43% and Fernando Haddad one of 36%. Behind them were Marina Silva at 22%, Geraldo Alckmin at 16% and Ciro Gomes at 15%. In Friday’s debate on TV Globo, the last one before the election, Marina made a firm appeal to Haddad: “When we are facing a crisis like the one we are going through, we need to think about the project that is the country, not the project that is power.” A sentiment that probably many Brazilians shared at that moment.

On election night, it looked as if Bolsonaro would gain a majority of votes in the first round but it eventually ended up with a second round between Bolsonaro and Haddad, as predicted. Also predicted is that Haddad will face huge difficulties in defeating his opponent in the second round. The candidates predicted as having a good chance in the second round –– thanks to lower rejection percentages –– had no chance against Haddad in the first round.

Lula demonstrated his unparalleled electoral power in nominating a replacement for his party who immediately overtook the months-long campaigns of the other candidates. The question for PT now is if that power is strong enough to take their candidate all the way, or if it has cinched the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.